Fast Food With a Side of Germs

Abby Deeths, Reporter

The visit to a fast food restaurant tends to be accompanied by the question, “How safe is the food I’m eating?”. Some may question the food’s relative nutritional value, its freshness, and now, in the times of the pandemic, its sanitation. Of course, there are regulations on fast food, but how safe is the food that we consume? Are there ways that restaurants can find a way around or overlook requirements?

To know if food chains are bending the rules, we must first know what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expects of them. There are many practices that fast food chains can follow in order to ensure citizen’s safety from both Covid-19 and germs in general. The FDA website contains an article on the most crucial practices for fast food chains. 

The first of these practices is “managing employee’s health”, which pertains to monitoring the risk of Covid-19 in employees and ensuring against its spread. A second practice is “Monitoring Employees Hygiene”, which states that employees must follow all precautions to protect others from Covid. This includes diligent handwashing, keeping hands away from the face, and covering the mouth when sneezing. 

The FDA also states that it is important for fast food restaurants to be “Managing Operations in a Foodservice Establishment or Retail Food Store”. This category emphasizes that the basic aspects of food safety that were put into place before Covid must still be followed. It is food safety, such as proper cooking and preparing of food, and restaurant cleanliness, such as proper maintenance of dishwashers.

 Lastly, the FDA preaches the importance of “Managing Food Pick-Up and Delivery”. This means fast food chains must maintain the sanitation of the vehicle that the food is in, keep social distancing during delivery, and package food properly, among other things. 

The real question once we know this, though, is whether these guidelines are being followed by fast food restaurants. A summary of a case study conducted in 2008 regarding a fast food employee was written in “The Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality & Tourism” by Lauren Dundes & Tamiko Swann. The subject of the study had worked in three different fast food restaurants. The study led the researchers to discover that the infrequent visits from the FDA are often not enough to keep restaurants fully safe. According to the article, the most common health code violations come from the work force themselves, who are often young and neglected instruction due to their tendency to move from job to job quickly. This being said, there are a couple of food safety violations that were repeatedly discovered in the case study. 

The first violation is improper training of workers. The employee that was studied reported that she was trained by watching a series of boring videos in one restaurant. In the next two, her employers taught nothing about food safety, and both the managers and employees showed no concern for following regulations, or unknowingly broke them. One of her managers even purposely sneezed on the hamburger of a challenging customer. 

Another reported problem from the worker is the negligence of maintaining proper food temperature, which is often crucial in destroying bacteria. Food temperature, according to the employees, was frequently ignored, as it takes extra work to stabilize and record proper temperature. Food items were often left on counters for long enough that they dethawed before being placed back in the freezer. Once outside the freezer, they were not kept at the correct temperature and customers even received undercooked food once in a while. Employees at one restaurant were expected to label how long food had been sitting out, but only did so when a district manager or health inspector entered. 

Cross contamination was also a frequent sight for the employee in the study. Cooks tended to use the same gloves to handle the raw food that they were placing on the grill and the cooked food that they were assembling to be eaten. Tubs used for raw foods were also often rinsed out with no soap in order to place cooked foods into them. 

Lastly, the employee identified poor handwashing. Employees were known to go from working with cash at a register or smoking outside, to handling food for customers. Hand washing was significantly less frequent than it should have been. 

The case study discussed was initiated in response to hidden cameras that were set up in fast food restaurants by Dateline. As reported by NBC in 2003, the things seen on the cameras and witnessed by the thousands of inspectors are largely problematic. The article states, “At a Hardee’s in Florida, a customer was handed a cup of soda with blood dripping from it. There was blood on her change as well.” It also says, “In a Chicago, in a Wendy’s, inspectors found a dead rodent decomposing in a rat trap. At a California Taco Bell, someone bit into a taco, only to find chewing gum.”

A student here at Fruita Monuments has worked in a few fast food restaurants and reported his own experiences. Chick-fil-a, he says, has done a great job with keeping things sanitary during the pandemic. Mcdonalds, on the other hand, isn’t quite as sanitary. As he put it, “The sanitation was really good at Chick Fil A, they had very high priorities for staying clean and sanitizing everything including your hands and other work items. Mcdonald’s on the other hand, didn’t have a good sanitation keep up. As long as it looked clean it was clean and they didn’t really keep things clean in general”. He also stated that the grills in Mcdonald’s were incredibly unsanitary, and the huge buckets of grease beside them were appalling. 

So, has Covid-19 affected these violations? In short, it has, but likely not enough for these restaurants to be considered fully sanitary. To summarize an article by Insider, the general exchange of germs has lessened through increased sanitation of certain surfaces, plastic barriers, social distancing, online ordering, the use of masks, and the requirement of gloves. The problem, though, is that behind these new requirements, the prior hazards mentioned above are likely still occuring. It is also unknown how long these fast food chains will keep up their Covid-inspired sanitation. People cannot be sure they are following all of the important practices mentioned at the beginning of the article that are highlighted by the FDA. As much as the American culture enjoys fast food, they may not be as protected from its health risks as they believe they are.